WMU News

Faculty member's book gives new reading of Nazi death camps

March 25, 1999

KALAMAZOO--Through the writings of survivors, documentaries and now the major motion picture "Schindler's List," it seems many people believe they have a pretty good idea what it was like to live in a Nazi death camp like Auschwitz.

But do they really?

That's a question Dr. Mary Lagerwey, a Western Michigan University assistant professor of nursing, encountered when she researched the memoirs of Holocaust survivors. And she found that in some ways, people's understanding of life in the camps is lacking.

After extensively rereading accounts by Holocaust victims, Lagerwey gives a new perspective to life in Auschwitz in the appropriately titled book "Reading Auschwitz," published recently by Alta Mira Press, a division of Sage Publications Inc.

In her book, which grew out of her dissertation while a WMU doctoral student in sociology, Lagerwey finds that for many people, knowledge of the Holocaust is shaped predominantly by the writings of men. As she continued to read about the Holocaust and in particular Auschwitz, she was struck not only by what women survivors had written, but also how those remembrances were being overlooked.

"I was impressed with how rich some of the women's stories were," Lagerwey says, "but in many cases, their stories were not being heard."

Most people's perceptions of the Holocaust -- Anne Frank notwithstanding -- are shaped by such male writers as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. Though Levi breaks male stereotypes by writing about relationships, memoirs by female survivors, including Charlotte Delbo, Fania Fenelon and Sara Nomberg-Przytyk, delve more into their bonds with other prisoners.

Issues men and women faced in the death camps also set them apart, Lagerwey says. Among those issues were giving birth and child care. In addition to fighting for their own survival, some women were responsible for caring for their children and became absorbed in a nightmarish struggle to keep their children from extermination.

Lagerwey found that this perspective of life in Auschwitz, the largest, most complex and most notorious of the Nazi death camps, too often was being ignored.

"Part of what I did was a content analysis of the memoirs themselves," Lagerwey says. "I wanted to look at what is being offered and whose stories are being emphasized."

Lagerwey hadn't planned on studying the Holocaust, but became absorbed in it after her graduate advisor, who was researching the subject, gave her some material to read.

"I found myself very, very interested in it," Lagerwey says. "At one time, I had so many books out of the library they wouldn't let me take any more out.

"It raised so many issues about life. I didn't go into my doctoral dissertation thinking I would do this, but all the questions about suffering and how we, as a society, think about suffering intrigued me."

Lagerwey is not Jewish, but found a connection between her family's Dutch ancestry and the onslaught of Nazism. Her father, a U.S. citizen, had returned to Holland and was strongly urged to flee the country after Germany invaded Poland. After she began her research, she also learned that other family members were very interested in the Holocaust and her project.

In addition to extensive reading, Lagerwey visited Auschwitz twice and traveled to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Entries from a journal she kept during her travels are interspersed throughout the book, giving it a personal feel.

As Lagerwey's research continued, the plight of Holocaust victims at times became too real, such as when she would awaken from nightmares in which she was in the death camp with her two sons, Alex and Arie, and unable to save them.

"At those times I knew I had to put my research down for awhile," Lagerwey says.

To say much of what she read about Auschwitz was disturbing would be a huge understatement. But perhaps one of the most pervasive and troubling themes was the helplessness of victims swept up in Hitler's "Final Solution."

"No matter what these people were like as individuals, their survival often was by chance and was way beyond their physical control," Lagerwey says. "It shows how in the face of overwhelming evil there is very little one person can do.

"In that way, it was extremely depressing and shows how almost anyone could be destroyed."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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